Two years ago, traveling to an unfamiliar place for work was a repetitive act of planning, packing, traveling, and embracing the newness of unexplored surroundings. Immersing myself in a new environment sharpened all senses, while simultaneously enhancing my enjoyment of the unknown with a small slice of anxiety thrown in the mix to keep me on my toes. Having never traveled to Mexico, the excitement was palpable. Yet what lay ahead during that trip, unbeknownst to me, was to be the last ‘normal’ trip for a very long time.
Fast forward two years and one pandemic later, things are no longer as we remember them. The Mack truck that is Covid-19, struck the world headfirst, throwing humanity into a place so unfamiliar that things may never be the same again. Time, despite lockdowns, shelter-in-place orders, and mandates, continues to move forward regardless of the measures put in place by anyone of authority. As the seconds, minutes, hours pass by, they build into days, weeks, months, and years until we barely remember what things were like before.
So, when the opportunity came up to return to the last familiar destination before this monumental shakeup, Oaxaca City, Mexico, previous feelings of excitement for the unknown and familiarity of travel were flipped upside down. Excited to be returning to a place I knew, my anxieties festered around traveling on a plane, vaccine passports, and Covid testing. Thankfully, I had a partner-in-crime to alleviate my concerns and bring me back to a small sense of normality.
I hadn’t traveled with Geoff Gulevich since a wild trip to northern India years ago (which now seems unfathomable), seeing his familiar face in the airport and being with someone who is in the same boat (or plane in this case) as me, provided a sense of comfort. Geoff is one of the most seasoned travelers I know, and even he was wondering how this is all going to work. We set off through security to catch the redeye to Mexico City, where we waited out a long layover at the airport, drinking beer and catching up on each other’s life.
In the late afternoon, we caught a flight to Huatulco, a beautiful beach community perched on the west coast of the state of Oaxaca. Our guide for the trip, Javier Salazar, is the owner of Oaxaca Bike Expeditions, a mountain bike tour company that both Geoff and I traveled with on our first trips to Mexico. He and his friend Esteban picked us up for a few days of exploring and fishing around the area before heading inland to Oaxaca City. The vibe is relaxed in this tourist destination, and we enjoy some incredible fishing, time at the beach, and working on our Canadian tans (also known as very bad sunburns). By the time we arrive in Oaxaca City two days later, we are ready to get on our bikes and ride the single track in the jungle.
When entering the city of Oaxaca, the main feeling centers around its rich cultural history. It is impossible to miss, every building, cobblestone street, and church exude a sense of historical significance. The city, founded in 1532, has had Zapotec and Mixtec settlements in the area for thousands of years until the Spanish arrived in 1521. The conquest of the area by the Spanish and hundreds of years of occupation is easily seen in the architecture of the city, yet the soul of the city remains with the Mexican people. Despite the Spanish influence, the rich Mexican culture shines through in their food, hospitality, and friendly nature, making a trip to Oaxaca City a must-do for anyone looking for a rich cultural experience. Of course, we are here for all that, but biking is what we really crave.
The Sierra Madre mountains loom over Oaxaca City, which sits at an elevation of just over 5000 feet. As we leave the 270000-person city and begin climbing into the Sierra Madres, the houses become few and far between, gaining another 5000 feet to our highest elevation. As we plunge deeper into the remote forest and jungle of the mountains, the variety of the landscape is what excites everyone on the trip. Passing through lush jungle and climbing higher into pine & oak forests that are peppered with giant agave plants, most of which are protected within the eco-reserve and UNESCO World Heritage Site status, you begin to notice dark slivers of single track in the forest, weaving through the variety of landscapes.
We spend the next 5 days exploring all of the trails that Javier and his knowledgeable group of guides and drivers navigate us through. The collection of trails range from fast, flowy single track to steep, rugged downhills trails that are on par with the most technical trails I’ve ever ridden. Home to many stages of the Trans-Sierra Norte, a 5-day enduro stage race, there are enough trails in the area to keep you busy for weeks. Our crew, made up of mostly other Mexican riders, hit the trails hard through a variety of conditions, as we arrived in Oaxaca at the tail end of the rainy season. We got everything from exciting mud-filled descents in a torrential downpour, too hot and humid jungle shredding, and foggy hero dirt that has Geoff and I feel right at home in the PNW. The assortment of trails and conditions have us all psyched, hooting and hollering amongst the pines and agave, rolling down to the van and piling in for as many laps as we can handle.
Evenings are spent reminiscing about our favorite moments of the day, as we share mezcal-infused drinks and enjoy the famous culinary experiences that Oaxaca City is known for. As the beating heart of the mezcal-tequila scene in Mexico, Oaxaca is also widely known as a culinary destination, where foodies flock to enjoy the numerous restaurants scattered throughout the city and surrounding areas. Many people come here for the cuisine alone, but pairing it with world-class riding makes for a journey comparable to a few others.
As the week rolls on, the anxiety and doubt Geoff and I had previous to the trip falls away. The familiarity of being with a guide and locals like Javier, as well as the tight Covid protocols, has us enjoying the trip like first-time travelers. Everything was exciting and fresh, yet with a recognizable feeling. The new reality of traveling becomes apparent quickly, with Covid tests, vaccine passports, and travel restrictions all getting sorted right before our trip back to Canada. We are returning to where it all started for us, going full circle back home, just as the trip down to Oaxaca was a full circle from before the pandemic. The main takeaway from it all is the word “full”. We are returning home full of memories, full of stories, full of expectations, and most importantly, full of hope for the future. A future where travel and borders begin to fall away and a return to normalcy, whatever that normalcy turns out to be.
MENTIONS: Photos and Story by: Bruno Long, Rider Geoff Gulevich. @orbea